Newspaper article International New York Times

Will Messi Solve Problem, or Be a Problem?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Will Messi Solve Problem, or Be a Problem?

Article excerpt

Lionell Messi's recent sideline antics after being benched by his coach bring into question whether he has the maturity to help Bareclona overcome its problems.

Lionel Messi is one of the two outstanding players of this generation. Given the humility with which he has carried his fame, many admirers would give him the edge over his sole challenger, Cristiano Ronaldo.

It is irrelevant which of the two is recognized in Zurich on Monday night as FIFA's world player of 2014. They have monopolized this award since 2008, kicking it between them like their personal soccer ball, and only Manuel Neuer, Germany's goalkeeper at the 2014 World Cup, is in the frame with them for the award this time.

Messi, though, is in danger of jeopardizing what separates him from most others: his childlike joy, along with his game-winning effectiveness at the heart of Barcelona's team.

We are looking for that smile, that simplicity, more than ever right now. Very few are able to exhibit such traits in a team sport driven by winner-takes-all pressures. But as Barcelona seems to be unraveling around him, now is the time for Messi to be part of the solution, not the deepening division around him.

He is 27, a mature age in soccer. He already has more personal and team accolades than one player might reasonably expect in a lifetime. Yet a week ago, rather than accept that his coach has the right to select whatever players he deems fit and ready for any particular game, Messi brooded on the sideline.

Right or wrong, Coach Luis Enrique is relatively new to Barcelona team management. Enrique joined the Barca ranks as a player in the mid-90s, spent three years in charge of the junior players on the Barcelona B team, and then had short-lived coaching spells at Roma and Celta Vigo.

Enrique's task now is bigger than any he has known. The Catalans expect their style -- first implanted by Johann Cruyff more than two decades ago, then carried to superlative heights recently under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova -- to be perpetuated, perhaps even improved upon.

The challenges to the club are immense. It faces a sudden presidential election at the end of this season. It is under a FIFA embargo that prevents it from signing new players. Its soccer director, Andoni Zubizarreta, was dismissed last week, and its core brand, the flowing style of play that moves the ball like water dropping off a leaf, is easier to disrupt now than at any time over the past decade.

Why? Because continuity is the hardest thing to manage in a sport where every ambitious team sets out to break it.

Guardiola said when he left after four all-conquering seasons that the effort drained him. His understudy at first maintained the success, not least because he was known to other members of the club and trusted by them.

It cannot be exaggerated how much Vilanova's cancer, and then his untimely death, affected not only the players, but everyone at the club, from the president Josep Bartomeu on down. …

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